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Church To Play a Role In Games

Olympics: The influence of the Mormon church will be omnipresent, but it doesn't want to appear to heavy handed.

January 27, 2002|From Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — When the first Mormon settlers wandered into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they were on the run from public scrutiny, seeking to be left alone with their religion and polygamous lifestyle.

Now, with the Winter Games set to begin in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8, the Mormons are again being scrutinized

Critics have accused Utah's dominant religion of exploiting the opportunity to be the host of an Olympics, while nervous organizers have struggled to keep the focus on the games.

The Mormons themselves have a different view. To them, it's all in God's hands.

After all, church founder Joseph Smith himself prophesied that his followers would build the New Jerusalem in the mountains, explains Elder Henry B. Eyring, one of the governing 12 apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It goes clear back to the book of Isaiah, which says that Zion would be established at the tops of the mountains and that the nations of the world would come there," Eyring said. "Here we are in the tops of the mountains and people are coming up to see us. In a sense we expected it. Only the prophecies didn't say anything about downhill skiing."

To some, the idea of Olympics as divine prophecy might seem absurd. But since the church's founding in upstate New York in 1830, members have believed that God set them apart from the rest of the world.

Even today, when the church has 11 million members and is one of the world's fastest-growing faiths, Mormons still proudly call themselves, in the words of their president, "a peculiar people."

"I don't think we've changed at all. We're as peculiar as ever," Eyring said. "But we're getting larger and there are a lot more people who are as peculiar as we are. It's not as easy to laugh the church away."

It will be especially difficult during the Olympics, when the pale granite spires of the Mormon temple provide a backdrop for medal ceremonies, to be held at a plaza donated by the church. But most fans won't be able to see the inside of the building: Non-Mormons are barred from entering.

Although the mountains will be the real symbol of the games, NBC vice president David Neal said, the lights of Temple Square will certainly appear on camera.

"If we were doing the Olympic Games in Rome, the Vatican is something that you would see from time to time," Neal said. "That's really the case here in Salt Lake."

The church, which claims 70 percent of Utah's population as members, doesn't just dominate the skyline. The state's governor, two senators and three congressmen are Mormon, as is 90 percent of the state Legislature. Church members dominate boardrooms, school boards, and even the alcohol control bureau that designed the state's sometimes Byzantine liquor laws.

In fact, the Salt Lake City Games probably have the greatest emphasis on religion since the modern Olympics began, said William Baker, a history professor at the University of Maine who wrote the book, "If Christ Came to the Olympics."

"On the one hand, you have the concern of Salt Lake City that it project itself not as a Mormon town but a modern city," Baker said. On the other, there's "the concern of the Mormons who hope that for God's sake, people will forget polygamy and racism as their heritage. The Mormons are trying to airbrush these realities in their history."

When Utah was awarded the Olympics, the church began a public relations blitz that included sending out lists of story ideas to some of the 9,000 members of the media expected during the 17 days of the games.

But since then, the church has backed off, dropping plans to pour millions of dollars into TV advertising and pulling missionaries from downtown streets and hotels. Mormon volunteers at Temple Square and residents putting up families of athletes have been warned to refer questions about religion to church experts.

"They're trying to do things with a light touch," said Stephen Pace, an activist for openness in the games and one of the church's most outspoken critics. "But in Utah politics, culture, economics, everything, the Mormon church is the 800-pound gorilla. It's kind of stupid to think that it's going to turn into an 87-pound figure skater for the duration of the games."

Even those watching at home will probably learn something about Mormons, who traditionally believe, among other things, that Jesus Christ visited the New World after the resurrection; that the Book of Mormon is a third testament of the Bible; that God was once a man; and that men who live right can be elevated to godhood.

They say that families can be reunited after death, and they research their genealogies to find dead ancestors who can be baptized retroactively. They have made mission work a priority: There are 60,000 Mormon missionaries on the job today, from the iconic young men on bicycles to elderly couples who spend their days doing temple service in foreign lands.

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